Monitoring Changes in SARS-CoV-2

Sometimes viruses go through changes that result in a new version of the disease, called a variant. Changes in viruses are not uncommon and can appear and disappear over time. There are known variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the virus that causes COVID-19. Scientists are working to learn more about these variant strains of the virus, including how easily they spread, whether they cause more severe illness, and whether current COVID-19 vaccines can protect people against them. At this time, the CDC states there is no evidence that these variants cause more severe illness or increased risk of death.

On January 28, 2021, DHEC and the CDC announced the detection of two cases associated with the SARS-CoV-2 variant that first emerged recently in South Africa. These are the first two cases of this variant in South Carolina as well as the first in the United States.

On January 29, 2021, DHEC announced the detection of one case associated with the SARS-CoV-2 variant that first emerged in the United Kingdom. The case, an adult from the Lowcountry region, has an international travel history.

The CDC and other national and international public health organizations are tracking multiple COVID-19 variants occurring around the world.

  • In the United Kingdom (UK), a new variant called B.1.1.7 has emerged. This variant spreads more easily and quickly than other variants. Currently, there is no evidence that it causes more severe illness or increased risk of death. This variant was first detected in September 2020 and is now highly prevalent in London and southeast England. It has since been detected in numerous countries around the world, including the United States and Canada.
  • In South Africa, another variant called 1.351 has emerged independently of the variant detected in the UK. This variant, originally detected in early October, shares some mutations with the variant detected in the UK. 
  • In Brazil, a variant called P.1 emerged and was identified in four travelers from Brazil, who were tested during routine screening at Haneda airport outside Tokyo, Japan. This variant contains a set of additional mutations that may affect its ability to be recognized by antibodies. This variant has not been detected in the US.

In November 2020, the CDC officially launched the National SARS-CoV-2 Strain Surveillance (NS3) program to increase the number of viruses undergoing characterization. Since early December, DHEC has been sending at least 10 SARS-CoV-2 virus samples biweekly to the CDC for study in an effort to help South Carolina and the CDC to monitor for any meaningful changes to the virus.

DHEC’s Public Health Laboratory (PHL) staff are trained for performing SARS-CoV-2 whole-genome sequencing. DHEC’s PHL has been conducting sequencing on randomly selected samples since June 2020 as part of national efforts to identify variants of the SARS-COv-2 virus.

DHEC continues to work closely with the CDC during these ongoing national and international efforts to accurately identify COVID-19 virus variants. DHEC will continue to keep South Carolinians updated and informed and new information will be provided as it’s available. 


Additional Resources
CDC: Emerging SARS-CoV-2 Variants (Updated Jan. 15, 2021)


Career of Service COVID-19 Statewide